Western Fantasy genre in Japan

Two particular titles of quality come to mind. Densetsu no Yūsha no Densetsu (Legend of the Legendary Heroes) and Seiken no Blacksmith (The Sacred Blacksmith).

In a sense they exist as both novels and tv shows in Japan. Both have that bitter-sweet quality in Japanese stories, this time set in a Western medieval setting. The common Japanese themes such as easily recognizable characters (powers), secret and mysterious character histories, and comedic variations are present. The Japanese light novel format is the original source for both titles. Meaning they were both produced as light novels. Light novels are longer than short stories and shorter than novels, yet are structured in the same way trilogies and massive 10 volume fantasy series are. From this source the show is then made and broadcast on tv in Japan. This then comes to the US as imported anime by such companies as Funimation. Thus they exist as brand names in both light novel format and anime format.

I have yet to read the light novels but judging from the anime shows themselves, the story is rich, mature, well developed, and very dramatic. The common occurrence is that much detail and material is cut out to fit a novel into a tv show. Take the problem of trying to include all the mental narration comments in Dune the novel into Dune the movie. It’s not quite the same impact without the mental thoughts. Unlike Western fantasy, the philosophy for Japanese fantasy is very strange and unusual. Take Utawarerumono for example. It is billed as a fantasy but you have elements of techno-magic as well. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, do you remember that quote. Whereas in Western fantasy, Tolkien dominates the world setting or Judeo-Christian depictions of magic are greatly used, such as Harry Potter. There are also pure magic worlds such as The Wheel of Time or Brandon Sanderson’s world building. I prefer the latter over the former, but both are strictly Western fantasy in that the world consists of an internal “magic” system that has no relationship to “Technology” as we know it. That is not the case for Japanese fantasy. The fine line dividing fantasy from dark fantasy from techno-magic science fiction, is greatly blurred in Japanese fantasy genres. And I find that I particularly love that type of blend.

I also have to note this story:The Grand Central Arena. My impression after reading it was that it had a lot of elements that I also see in Japanese fiction, whether of the tv sort or the written sort. It is written from a purely Western perspective yet it has particularly exotic influences in my eyes. It is not a fantasy but a science fiction story, a sf and space opera type story. Space operas usually have wars crossing solar systems or galaxies, such as you see in Heroic Age or Legend of the Galactic Heroes or Babylon 5, and there are strong elements of that in GCA. The story, however, is not told from a battleship or from an admiral’s perspective, but from the perspective of an elite experimental pilot that somehow ends up in a different part of the universe than where they expected to reach. There they meet aliens of various different civilizations and must survive in a universe that had more strange rules than they had ever envisioned. This kind of story/plot premise interests me much more than the usual fantasy saga of some boy from a farm town going to become a legendary hero and savior of the world. That kind of plot has been used up in Western fantasy genres. There’s only so many times you can repeat a heroic saga or Star Wars IV: A New Hope before things start becoming cliched and clones of each other. I praised Brandon Sanderson’s works over Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time because Brandon Sanderson creates world with better logical consistency and character faithfulness. The WoT would have worked well if it was an anime, but as a fantasy series there were issues as time went on. That’s usually the case for such a long series. It’s hard to keep up quality and faithfulness to the material for years and years. Even a genius’ creative output will decrease the more of the same stuff they devote their time and energy to. The broader genre mixing of Japanese light novel series and manga serializations seem to offset this. The Japanese authors are beasts. A popular mangaka outputs one manga chapter every week. Take Naruto for example. It started in 1999 and has produced 516 plus chapters since then. Every week or so, with only intermittent breaks. The mangaka writes the dialogue, creates the world, draws the characters, and everything together. It is a synthesis. Perhaps that helps them from becoming burned out, for I see much of that with long novel series in America. They just got so much material they need to output that creativity naturally drops. Perhaps that is why I always preferred trilogies such as Tolkien’s work and the Uplift War.

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2 Comments on “Western Fantasy genre in Japan”

  1. Ryk E. Spoor Says:

    Thanks for the comments on Grand Central Arena. GCA’s basic “essence” actually comes from the very old “Golden Age” SF tradition (with E.E. “Doc” Smith being the greatest single influence), but there are quite deliberately a number of anime (and other material) influences and references present. I have a partial list of the references, actually, on my website; these range from Doc Smith to the Six Million Dollar Man, Slayers, Dragonball Z, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, Vision of Escaflowne, Chinese mythology, and many more.

    One note that may be of relevant interest to your discussion is that Grand Central Arena has been licensed for translation and publication in Japan by Hayakawa.

  2. ymarsakar Says:

    Landing on super artifact constructs from aliens definitely reminds me of Heechee.


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